Geralde Gabeau, a longtime leader of Boston’s Haitian community, worked at Boston Medical Center and with medical students at Boston University. Several years ago, there was a shortage of interpreters at the medical center to assist Haitian Creole-speaking patients. Gabeau, turning to young adults in her own community, found that few people had the necessary skills. Yet his university students spoke the language.
“There are so many white students ready to go to Haiti and learn the language,” Gabeau said. “I was convinced that something had to be done.”
Gabeau was part of a committed group of Haitian leaders who have spent much of the past decade pushing Boston Public Schools to open a bilingual program, in which children can take their classes from math to social studies, in English and Haitian. Creole. The language is the third most spoken language in Boston public schools, second only to English and Spanish — and the Spanish-speaking community has had a bilingual curriculum that has catered to its children since 1970.
Bilingual programs have been gaining popularity nationally for several years now, spurred by demand from native speakers of common languages as well as monolingual English speakers who want all the benefits of bilingualism.
In Boston, however, it took a long time for enough people — and the right people — to agree that Haitian Creole deserved to join Spanish in the public school bilingual curriculum. And it wasn’t just the district administrators that had to be convinced. The Haitian community did not entirely agree either.
Michel DeGraff, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and originally from Haiti, brings this back to the history of Haiti with its colonizers.
“We became free in 1804, but thanks to the French language, we remained colonized,” DeGraff said.
While the vast majority of Haitians speak exclusively Creole, French remains the language of choice for the country’s ruling elite. For more than two centuries, Creole has been attacked as inferior, as a poor dialect of French rather than a language in its own right, and as a limitation for its speakers.
DeGraff said even Haitian intellectuals have contributed to these ideas about Creole, with scholars saying the language prevents people from thinking abstractly; that people need French to evolve, mentally; and that Creole has neither syntax nor spelling.
All of these things, says DeGraff, are wrong. And major universities in the United States have established departments to teach students Haitian Creole, recognizing its international relevance and linguistic value. Haitian Creole is spoken by far more people in the Americas than French, and a wave of aid workers has been drawn to Haiti since its devastating 2010 earthquake. DeGraff says that linguistically it’s also an interesting language. worth studying because, unlike most languages, it has a clear date of birth and place of birth – in 17th-century colonial Haiti.
Besides MIT, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Indiana University, and Florida International University all have such programs.
At the K-12 level, Miami and New York have programs that support bilingualism in English and Haitian Creole. Boston’s program will be the first in Massachusetts, however, and Boston Public Schools administrators have worked with Miami educators and other experts to develop a high-quality program.
Brain research has shown that bilingual people perform better on a range of cognitive tasks, and long-term studies of students in bilingual programs show that they perform better than their peers on standardized tests in middle school. When it comes to students who come to school speaking a language other than English, bilingual programs that pair English with their first language have been the only ones to close the stubborn achievement gaps between these students and their English-speaking peers. , according to leading bilingual researchers Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas.
Then there is the cultural advantage. Bilingual programs have a universal focus on language and culture, giving students who come from that given culture the opportunity to see their own stories prioritized by their schools and giving other students the opportunity to develop a deep appreciation for people. who are different from them.
Gabeau has spent years having conversations with fellow Haitians in Boston about the merits of a bilingual program that allows children to become academically proficient in reading and writing in Haitian Creole and English. When Tommy Chang became superintendent of Boston Public Schools in the summer of 2015, grassroots efforts were boosted inside the district. A former English learner himself, Chang has made cultural and linguistic inclusion a priority, advocating for greater sensitivity to the diverse backgrounds of students in the district.
And he called for an expansion of the district’s bilingual programming.
The Mattapan Early Elementary School will open in the fall of 2017 as the first expression of this goal. Located in one of Boston’s predominantly Haitian neighborhoods, it will have a bilingual Haitian Creole and English classroom for 4-year-olds, featuring the district’s renowned preschool program administrators who have translated into the new language . Each year, the district will welcome another class of 4-year-olds into the bilingual program, which will expand into subsequent years as the inaugural class ages.
The school will also serve 3-year-olds, kindergarteners and first-graders in traditional classrooms, though principals also plan to offer language support for native Haitian Creole speakers. in these classes, taking into account the composition of the community.
Ireland Plancher, a member of the Massachusetts Haitian Parents Association, fought hard for the bilingual program. She said there are many families in the Haitian community in Boston in which the parents speak only Haitian Creole and the children speak only English, creating a disconnect.
“We hope this will bring the children closer to their culture and their family,” Plancher said. Her granddaughter will join the program this fall.
Judith Mikel also plans to send her daughter there. Mikel is of Haitian descent and has always spoken English and Creole. However, her husband does not speak Creole and her 4-year-old daughter is brought up with a majority of English at home. Yet Mikel heard the research on elevated brain functioning in bilingual people. She wants this for her child.
Mikel said she’s not worried her daughter will feel connected to the American side of her heritage because the family lives in the United States. But Mikel is proud to be Haitian and she wants her children to feel the same way. The bilingual program can support this and add an extra layer to their connection to Haiti.
“It’s really important to me that not only does she know who she is and where she’s from, but also that she knows the language,” Mikel said.